I Am a Musician

I recall mornings helping with breakfast dishes as a child, as Karl Haas’s voice would greet me over the radio station (“Hello everyone”) to the sounds of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique. There’s no good way to describe the smile I felt inside. Later, still listening to the Classical station over my math pages, my heart would race just a little when I heard anything from the Baroque period, especially if it was orchestral. There were cassettes of Jean Pierre Rampal playing Telemann, of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s playing Bach’s exquisite Concerto for Oboe d’Amore. I’d sit with them for hours in the afternoons. I know every note still. My father’s college students would come over for Sunday afternoons sometimes and once they brought Handel scores and sang along to the Messiah, an assignment for their music history class. I was smitten. My strongest early memories are musical ones, and they are invariably memories of joy so strong it was bodily.

My strongest memories from my teens are musical too, but they are memories of doubt and confusion, eclipsed by a confidence I should not have possessed. I was steeping in a tradition that had grown up as a distortion of Christianity — a concept of gender roles that insisted that women were destined not even just ideally, but exclusively, for marriage and motherhood. To set those two ideals before a child — any child — is a gift; hopes and dreams of a family are deeply human and beautiful.

But the voices speaking to me in my adolescence were confining voices. One woman handed my a Xerox of a magazine article when I was fifteen. The thesis of this article was that Christians should not send their daughters to college because to do so suggests to these young women that their calling could be other than marriage and motherhood. The article was entitled “Teaching Our Daughters to Blaspheme God.”

Another authoritative voice in my adolescent world heard my first whispers of realization. I was sixteen and had just participated in my church’s adult choir concert. Everything about the experience was compelling. I adored the choir director for a dozen reasons. “I want to be a choir director someday,” I confided. And in a moment that I reflect on now as pure (though unwitting) evil, this grown-up I loved and trusted replied “Maybe you could lead a children’s choir since it would be unbiblical for a woman to be a choir director because then she would have authority over men.”

By that point in my life I had responded to the shaping voices around me with a vibrant and submissive imagination. Without a second thought I shifted my dreams. Again. I became comfortable with the idea of children’s choir and found many opportunities to grow the gifts I possessed toward that mission. I had a large roster of private piano students. I devoted myself to helping my mother care for our family. But the sparks of extreme joy from my childhood never happened in those contexts, and I nearly forgot about them until, in my late teens, I had the good fortune to study with a private instrumental teacher again, something that was only an occasional part of my childhood in a homeschooling family of seven children living on a shoestring.

It was Bach’s trio sonatas and Schubler chorales that triggered those smiles again, along with the small handful of times I was lucky enough to sing in ad hoc choral ensembles. By then, though, I knew one truth without a doubt: I would never make this kind of world class collaborative music myself, because I was a woman. I would be a wife. I would be a mom. I would be a musician here and there and now and then, but to say it was my calling would be unbiblical. To imagine that I could ever lead it, or that I could ever devote time and attention to world class opportunities, was impossible because it was incongruent with my settled understanding of my gender and what it proscribed.

Tonight I’ll be at the console of the world class organ in Auer Hall at the Jacobs School of Music, where I am a graduate student. It will not necessarily be a world class performance, but I will have a solo minute at the close of the concert, inviting the combined choirs into a performance of Handel’s Zadok the Priest. I will be that Baroque orchestra that stirred my childhood heart. I will replicate, to the best of my current abilities, the sounds I heard Jean Pierre Rampal and Alison Balsom make–the sounds that I categorized as “not available to me.”

Earlier in the program, the rendition we will offer of Abbie Betinis’s incredible “From Behind the Caravan” will absolutely be world class, involving a percussionist who was recently a member of the Silk Road Ensemble, directed by a professor only two years older than I, who has an international career in choral music. I’ve studied both conducting and composition with him this year and I am singing in his choir – singing music by Abbie Betinis, a fellow alumna of my alma mater, a composer whose voice resonates with me, whose skills I aspire to. These songs are of burning courage, and I?… I understand them.

I will be singing them with burning courage, and my heart will be racing again for sure. My husband and children will be in the audience to see me take my first bow on the world’s stage. What I know now is that my calling involves at least these three things: marriage, motherhood, and music. I am like a child again these days — the one with the smile at the kitchen sink, not the one with the settled understanding. I come home each night bone tired and invariably, no matter how demanding or even demoralizing the day’s work was, I grin and say to my husband with a sense of relief, “I just can’t believe I get to go back again tomorrow.”

My compass, to quote a poet, had been broken. Tonight it is not, and I am at the outset of a surprising journey down a road beyond home that is deeply beautiful and immensely good.




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